Escaping Florida

Artist, Riley Letendre, rendition of a person escaping the state of Florida.

Riley Letendre

Artist, Riley Letendre, rendition of a person escaping the state of Florida.

By Riley Letendre, Marco Island Academy High School

It’s May 6, 2022, and it is “wear your future day” for seniors here at school. I stroll in wearing my University of Massachusetts: Boston shirt, already reminded of exactly why I’m making the sacrifice to go away to school. I have a great family – the best support system any teenager could ask for. I have friends here. I like our location in terms of proximity to other parts of the state. Why would I ever want to move over a thousand miles from all of the great things I have?

The University of Massachusetts – (Wikipedia Commons)

Each day, I listen to students make racially insensitive comments and think it causes no harm – I hear people laugh off the issues that are serious to me. I volunteer at events I expect to be bipartisan and then find that they all lean the same way – the side that I once used to respect but now find spews hate and rhetoric that I can’t stand for.

I am leaving Florida for a few reasons, but primarily for one, overarching reason – I would feel unsafe staying. As a young woman, the existing bans on abortion after 15 weeks and the potential for further in the coming months leave me feeling like I lack control over my body. The “Don’t Say Gay” bill horrifies me even as a straight, cisgender person – knowing my friends and family won’t have the freedom to be who they are publicly is terrifying.

Florida Governor- Ron DeSantis (Wikipedia Commons)

The area we live in is the belly of conservatism, where there is seemingly no escape from the Republican party and its values. No matter how diverse our sector of the state becomes, the power and reach of the elite will always override “the other.” These things are getting worse, as our divides are only deepening as our politicians make decisions unchecked. Congressional district lines are being redrawn, breaking up liberal areas so there’s always a conservative majority. They want to shut out people with different opinions and flip a state that can go either way.

This level of partisan polarization infiltrates our schools, stores, and society on a deeper level than most see on the surface. Teachers aren’t allowed to call their room a “safe space,” discussions about politics are very closed and limited, and some people don’t feel comfortable sharing their opinions. Meanwhile, the other side gets to run stores that have art comparing Nazis to liberal Americans, or won’t follow government regulations during an international pandemic.

Even at the college level, there are concerns about professors having their rights to free speech revoked and changes in tenure based on their beliefs. Higher education is an environment that should be open and accepting of variant beliefs, but at the government level, there is a desire to eliminate this. Even at college, where I was told “things would get better,” schools still face the same problems.

For me, this isn’t about pointing the finger. I’m not the type of person that thinks a political party defines your identity, or a set of beliefs will make me like or dislike you. What this is about is the lack of respect and decorum between political affiliations and the support of legislation that is inherently biased to support one side of the political spectrum. How can you say you want freedom and autonomy from the government and yet support laws that restrict people’s bodily freedoms? How can you say you want free speech but then censor one side of the argument?

“The truth is that this isn’t about defending your belief, this is about limiting what powers others have.”

— Riley Letendre

The truth is that this isn’t about defending your belief, this is about limiting what powers others have. It is about only giving people “like you” power when others deserve to have the same.

I won’t have to worry about these things where I’m going. I won’t have to worry about my rights being overruled at the state level, or having to hide my views to get the same advantages as other people. I won’t have to feel like I should censor myself in school news. I won’t have to worry about whether my political alignment will have an effect on my congressional district. I will be around people who fact-check what they read and search for truth. Inside, I will feel comfortable knowing I can be who I am with pride and without fear. And while Massachusetts isn’t the be-all and end-all for a fair, democratic society, it’s pretty close to it.

This story was originally published on The MIA Wave on May 25, 2022.